6 quick and dirty tips for producing a nature documentary
By no means do I claim to be the expert at all (or at any) about producing documentaries. I'm sure many documentarians with vastly more experience than myself would roll their eyes at these suggestions. However, if you're like me and just trying to get your feet wet... in a creek someplace, while shooting a video; hopefully you'll find these tips to be helpful or at least comical. My experience with documentaries is small. I was lucky enough to be able to produce a video about a privately owned climbing area in eastern Kentucky called Muir Valley. The video is in the post production phase and will be released shortly. You can however watch a behind-the-scenes short about the project. Most of my production work has been in commercials and corporate videos... most of which take place indoors. Part of my passion (and most of my income) is in video production. While I love what I do professionally, I'd love even more to travel to exotic places and shoot video... I know... keep dreaming right? The Muir Valley Project allowed me to marry both of those passions together.
So if I haven't lost you by now (your cursor is probably hovering over the "x" right now) lets dive into these tips... before my page bounce rate goes through the roof.
1) Plan on throwing all your planning right off the cliff you're shooting on.
Ok, don't literally throw your production book off the mountain. It could quite literally kill somebody and that wouldn't be nice at all now would it? A lot of preproduction planning goes into any project. It's part of what makes videos so expensive to create. When you're shooting a documentary about an outdoor activity just know that things aren't going to go completely according to plan. I spent hours prior to ever stepping into the field planning locations, writing scripts and scheduling crew and nearly everything changed by the time we started shooting. The director didn't like the look of a location, scripts didn't match the feeling and crew wasn't available. It's all part of shooting in the outdoors and telling a story that's true to life and always unpredictable. In a studio or controlled space you know what you're going to get and you are in control. It goes without saying that you're not so much in control when your studio is in the wild. Oh yes and I put together production books for the shoot... didn't use them... it did look nice in my back pocket though.
2) Pack only the most essential camera and lighting gear... then trim it down.
When we first started planning for the Muir Valley Project I thought you needed a three ton grip package to make the shots look amazing. I wanted every light available and every Cine' Slider and jib crane we could get. This tainted view came from all my commercial work where you can pull the truck up to the back door and unload. That's not the case outside. We had to travel down into steep ravines (with 4WD vehicles) and hike gear up thigh burning inclines that had crew cursing my name. Thankfully the director and DP were smart and said no to all the gear and threatened to quit. I got my way with a few pieces of gear and the time to get them to the "set" outweighed the value of having that shot. Go light so you can move efficiently. Let nature give you amazing shots... not some fancy light or a jib. Oh and the one essential piece of gear (some will disagree) two-way radios. Yes, you will get lost and separated from your crew, you will have a shot on top of a cliff and need to talk to them, you will not want to have to yell. They're cheap... buy some or rent some for your project.
3) Know where your light is coming from and where it will be in an hour.
Studio lights don't move... the sun does. This goes along nicely with the point two. We only packed in one light for shooting interviews. Reflectors and the clouds became our best friend. Just having the one light meant we needed a generator, extension cords and of course the light. That meant at least two members of our crew were tied up carrying those items. Track your sun when you scout and visit the areas where you plan to shoot at the time of day you plan to shoot there. Keep close tabs on cloud cover and tree cover. Lighting will changes all the time and a location will be lit completely different in Summer than it will in Winter. On shoot day, plan ahead and factor in hiking time and set up. If you're trying to catch magic hour for that final climbing sequence or use natural light for an interview you can't be getting to your location at 4:00 p.m. when the sun sets at 5:45p. Your light will change constantly. You need to be set up and waiting for the sun to be at just the right angle... then work fast.
4) Sound is a beast in the woods... and that beast in the woods will pick up on your microphone.
Go with the flow when you're recording sound in a natural setting. Birds, bugs, wind, people screaming while take big whippers - you'll hear it all when you're silent and listening through a high quality mic. You'll have to roll with it and make sure the audio on your subject is crystal clear. Those noises will fade off into the background if you can hear what's being said and the content is powerful. Once you add in music it'll sound like part of the track. Well except for the F-bomb from the climber... you'll want to take that out.
5) Choose your crew wisely
When you're shooting a documentary, everyone on your team will need to be ready to step in at a moments notice. We had an amazing crew for the Muir Valley Project and most of them had never worked on a documentary before. Find people that you trust and that are willing to work hard. Most of what you'll do during production is managing logistics and moving from one location to the next. You'd be surprised how much time it takes to get 10 people and equipment from point A to point B in a valley. Plan accordingly and don't try and do it all yourself. If you can, have more than enough help on hand to keep things flowing smoothly; but if that's not feasible communicate with your crew what you'll need. Everyone on the MV Project was so exhausted at the end of our production weekends that often times they didn't want to even climb. Now that's a whole different level of work!
6) Aerial b-roll is worth its weight in gold
I know not everyone will have the budget to include a drone in their documentary but if you can, rent one. Even if the camera quality isn't what you're shooting for, having the amazing angles can make up for the slight granulation. For low budget projects I recommend the DJI Phantom Quadcopter. They're exploding in popularity and really aren't all that cost prohibitive. You'll be glad you added that tool to your tool box when you get into a spot where getting your camera just isn't happening. We were lucky enough to have a pilot from Chicago join us for one weekend while shooting for the Muir Valley Project. He had a Phantom equipped with a GoPro and the footage is some of the most awe-inspiring in the video. Beg, borrow or steal... ok don't steal... someone's helicopter if you can.
Beyond these tips, the best piece of advice I can give you is: 'Make your own way'. If you're just starting out no one is going to come to you and ask you to shoot a documentary about some really cool thing in some really cool place and give you $100,000 to work with. Not gonna happen. What you can do is find something that you're passionate about and work with a group (most likely a nonprofit) who needs your services. It'll be pro-bono but it'll be your project and your passion and you won't even mind all the lugging of equipment. Have fun!